This blog and the University of Waterloo course that it supports are focussed on understanding the impact that information technology is having on society today. Often, there is widespread disagreement on what this impact is. Opinions vary widely and are often directly opposed to each other in many of the areas that we consider. There is increasing recognition, especially after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, that information technology has been part of the disruption and insecurity that many people feel has affected their lives in recent years. Truth, in understanding this impact on people is important because unless we are basing our actions at a government, corporate and individual level on an accurate understanding of what is happening, they are unlikely to work as we hope.
This post considers how our pursuit of the truth is being affected by recent technological and political developments and what we can do about it.
What is Fake News?
Fake news is the deliberate presentation of information in a news format as fact that the writer knows to be false. It was highlighted as a factor which may have influenced the US election through its use via the internet and social media. It has been argued that political groups and parties, as well as foreign governments and other actors may have used fake news as a tool to influence voting patterns. Substantial evidence exists that fake news was common but there is significant disagreement over the influence that it had.
Fake news is not new. Examples of the deliberate spread of false information to try to influence elections have appeared since the dawn of democracy. However, in the recent US election it is argued by some that its use was more influential, affecting more people and impacting the result of the election more. The impact of fake news is still being understood. Much of the analysis thus far is based on the impact of individual fake news items. A recent article suggests that we also need to consider the concerted impact in the creation of whole online communities and movements that are motivated by realities that include systemic use of fake news and social media manipulation.
Fake news is also argued to have taken new forms. The internet and social media have reduced the financial cost of publishing information and made it much easier – pretty much anyone with internet access can do it. They have also made it easier to challenge established news sources, like television news, newspapers and forms of established media. So while it has been easier to publish fake news, it has also been easier to undermine the authority of established news sources.
It has also been easier for people to surround themselves with people and opinions that they agree with and which confirm or strengthen the opinions that they hold, leading some to argue that extreme opinions are more likely to develop.
The overall result of these processes is that the information that people are receiving and which forms their beliefs may be less factually accurate than it was in the past.
Why is Fake News Important?
Fake news is important because it influences peoples’ beliefs and people act on the beliefs that they hold. If someone believes that it is going to rain they may take an umbrella with them to work. Similarly, if they believe that a politician is dishonest they may be less likely to vote for them.
Two examples of actions with serious consequences that can be directly attributed to fake news have appeared in recent weeks. Pizzagate was a case of a false rumor that Hillary Clinton and her top campaign staff were running a child trafficking ring from a pizza restaurant in Washington DC. The false news rumor caused a man from North Carolina to enter the restaurant with a gun in an effort to investigate. The evolution of this conspiracy is detailed in a well researched New York Times article. While no one was injured on this occasion, the potential for harm was evident. Stephen Colbert had his own take on Pizzagate:
The second case had potentially apocalyptic consequences. On this occasion a fake news article alleged that a former Israeli Defense Minister was threatening to destroy Pakistan with nuclear weapons (which he had not said). The Pakistan Defense Minster responded by threatening to retaliate with their own nuclear weapons. Thankfully the misunderstanding was discovered before things escalated.
Democracies rely on public access to truthful information. Electorates need to be able to make judgements of who best will pursue their interests and therefor who they should vote for. Political theory argues that access to accurate information about the government and politicians as well as the wider functioning of society and the economy are necessary for democracy to function effectively. It has been assumed that the established media would have an important role to play in providing scrutiny and transparency in these areas, holding politicians to account. The growth of fake news may disrupt this system with as yet uncertain consequences.
There are a range of beliefs about what is currently happening. Some politicians and others have claimed that the traditional media were not playing the role that the political theory suggested that they should. Donald Trump frequently argued that the media were corrupt and were deliberately presenting inaccurate information to support the existing elites – Bernie sanders argued this position too. They argue that the decline in the influence of the traditional media is a good thing.
Others argue that the decline of traditional media will make politicians less accountable and subject to less scrutiny and that therefor democracy will be damaged.
Social media is a new factor in the current situation. News creation, distribution and discussion is easier by most of the population in most developed countries. More people are using social media as their main, or at least an important source of news, who previously would have relied on the traditional media. Facebook, Twitter and others are now sources of news and how the news that is displayed to users is selected is currently an active topic of discussion.
The social media tools select news items and sources for display to individual users based on a desire to maximise their engagement with the social media tool. They are keen that you spend as much time as possible using the tool and that you communicate as much as possible with, and grow, your network. They do this because it increases the value that they can provide to advertisers and others and therefor the income that they can generate.
Algorithms are developed which are the rules that are used to select the individual users’ news. These algorithms have been criticised as regularly including fake news and contributing to the formation of more extreme political views. Recently Facebook have announced measures to modify the algorithms that they use and to take steps to remove fake news.
The social media tool companies have had difficulty dealing with the fake news issue. First they argued that they were not responsible for the appearance of fake news and that the tools themselves simply reflected the preferences and actions of their users. After substantial adverse publicity based on this, they modified their approach and agreed to change the algorithms and adopt other measures to achieve a more balanced news selection.
This has opened the social media companies to charges of bias and trying to influence a particular political direction. Having tried to argue that their role was simply as a technology service provider they have now been forced to recognise that the rules that are used for news selection will reflect a particular view that they will continue to be challenged on in the future.
What Can You Do About Fake News?
Fake news makes finding the truth more complex. Not only are there more information sources to choose from, but there are also a significant part of those which are unreliable – either misleading or outright lies (deliberately, and knowingly false). While it is widely thought that our society faces significant, disruptive challenges, in part due to the application of technological innovation, our ability to access accurate information to base policy development and implementation to deal with these challenges is made more difficult by that very technology. A few tips on how individuals can deal with this that were detailed by PBS’s Wynne Davis are useful:
- Pay attention to the domain and the url: Is the url that the news comes from reliable. Is it a genuine url of a trusted source or one which has been made to look as if it is genuine.
- Read the “About Us” section: On genuine news sites this section should be measured and rational. Sites that are more sensational are more likely to be fake.
- Look at the quotes in the story: Are authoritative sources being quoted? Do the studies being quoted exist and are they credible – look them up.
- Look at who said them: Do the people quoted exist (look them up) and can you find the same quote on another reputable source?
- Check the comments: Has the article been shared and commented upon on social media and if so, has it been verified or condemned as fake there?
- Reverse image search: Is the image used elsewhere and is it an image of what it says it is in the article that you are checking. Often an image has been taken from elsewhere and misrepresented.
Davis also says that you can help stop fake news. If you see that a friend has spread fake news, believing it to be true, tell them.
What else can be done?
The social media companies are adopting measures that are intended to reduce the impact of fake news. Some have argued that they should not be doing this and that freedom of expression, also important in a democracy, determines that it is individuals who should select what they want to read and decide whether it is false or not.
Others argue that there are measures that can be taken to reduce the incidence of fake news and that it is important that this be done. Jan Dawson, writing on Recode suggests that artificial intelligence could be applied to reduce the incidence of fake news through moderating the news that is displayed and providing warnings of posts that make be fake.
Jan also argues that use of humans to evaluate popular news articles would also be possible – at least with articles that have a large readership.
Crowdsourcing of fake news content should also be possible. Creating the ability to flag fake content to the social media providers who could then check and deal with them may also help.
Most people believe that fake news is a serious issue. Dealing with the problems that society faces today requires an accurate understanding of their nature and the impact of our actions to solve them. It also requires the ability to apply social technologies to engage in open, honest, societal discourse.